General Assembly Roundup: Free School Lunches, Abortion Coverage

by | Jan 24, 2023

We check in with local legislators about the 2023 session

The East Greenwich contingent of the General Assembly – Justine Caldwell and Evan Shanley in the House and Bridget Valverde in the Senate – are all seasoned lawmakers at this point so they have gotten straight to business in this new session. Here’s a rundown:

Rep. Justine Caldwell (D. Dist. 30 – E. Greenwich, W. Greenwich) has introduced a bill to provide free lunches to all Rhode Island school children. 

“Every child needs to be fed during the school day. Period,” said Caldwell in a press release. “High-quality, universal lunch in schools is an investment that will pay off in better academic achievement, fewer discipline problems and healthier kids who have a better day at school. Instead of concerning ourselves with which families can or can’t or should pay for it, we should be focusing on how we can seize school lunch as an opportunity to improve nutrition and outcomes for an entire generation of growing children.”

Currently, in most Rhode Island school districts including East Greenwich, public school lunch is offered for free only to families whose incomes fall below 130 percent of the poverty level, and at a reduced price for those whose family income falls between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level. According to the state Department of Education, about 62 percent of school lunches served statewide are either free or reduced-price.

For the past two years, school lunch was offered for free to all students through federal emergency funding and waivers as part of pandemic support. That funding expired at the start of this school year so in East Greenwich, just like in most R.I. districts, the system returned to how it had been. 

Massachusetts, as well as a handful of other states, has continued universal free school lunch at least through this school year, paying for it with state funds.

“We have a couple of school years of experience with universal free lunch, and I’m confident that if we look at that experience, we will find that students, families and schools were all better for it,” said Caldwell. “Besides the important goal of ensuring that no child goes hungry at school, making school lunch free for everyone will eliminate stigmas, put an end to lunch shaming and lunch debt for good and create a situation where more people are invested in ensuring that school lunch is healthy and appealing.”

The fiscal note for Caldwell’s bill has not yet been done but the cost affixed to a similar bill in 2021 was $47.3 million. According to RIDE, the cost would be around $30 million.

Rep. Evan Shanley (D-Dist. 24, Warwick, E. Greenwich) said his top priority for East Greenwich was to increase state education aid. 

“The most likely vehicle to achieve this is by passing legislation that would require the state to fund all services and costs for students with disabilities,” said Shanley. “The [EG] town manager also sent the EG delegation a list of concerns and hopes for the upcoming session that we will all be keeping at the front of our minds.”

“In addition, I’m working on legislation to eliminate the marriage tax penalty and establish a retirement savings program to allow any Rhode Islander to save money for retirement through an IRA-type retirement investment program run by a newly established public corporation,” he said. 

“Finally, I am hoping to pass legislation that has been in the works for years on internet and data privacy protection and a bill to provide health insurance coverage for treatment with doctors of naturopathy.”

Sen. Bridget Valverde (D-Dist. 35, E. Greenwich, N. Kingstown, S. Kingstown) introduced the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act which aims to ensure the right to abortion is accessible to all Rhode Islanders. 

“One third of Rhode Islanders are enrolled in Medicaid and the Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal dollars for an abortion,” Valverde said. “The legislation will ensure that individuals on Medicaid and state health insurance plans have coverage for abortion procedures and are no longer excluded from accessing their rights because of financial barriers imposed in state law.” 

The bill would allow the use of state Medicaid dollars to cover abortion.

“This is the fourth year I have introduced this legislation, and support both inside and outside the State House continues to grow,” she said. “A clear majority of members in both the House and Senate have signed onto this legislation this year and Rhode Islanders are overwhelmingly with us. It’s time to end these abortion coverage bans.”

The support is a reflection of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2022 (Dobbs) to strike down the federal right to abortion (aka Roe v. Wade), said Valverde. “We gained a lot of momentum in the last year. It’s not enough to have the right [to an abortion] if you don’t have actual access.”

Abortion rights has been an important issue to Valverde from the start of her tenure in the state Senate in 2018. 

“I did envision a world without Roe. Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons to lend my support to codify Row v. Wade in the states. We knew what was happening.”

Valverde has also introduced a bill to temporarily remove the limit on the number of days retired state employees can work, aimed at retired teachers and school administrators. She noted that North Kingstown and other districts were facing a shortage of school administrators. The current law limits someone with a state pension to working 90 days before it cuts into their pension payments. 

Another bill Valverde is championing is a container deposit bill (aka a bottle bill), which would add a small deposit to the price of every glass, plastic and aluminum beverage container. 

“We’re the only state around here who doesn’t have it,” Valverde noted. “It’s been proven to reduce litter rates and improve recycling rates.”

She is hopeful this year might be the year as several Rhode Island environmental groups have made this their top priority. 

The General Assembly session is in early days. If you have any questions for our state legislators or for EG News about particular bills, let us know! Email [email protected].

You can reach the legislators directly at:
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]

Editor’s note: Information about the potential cost of the free school lunch was added to this story after it was originally published.

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